Why Is The Dog Whisperer Still Being Discussed?

I didn’t want to have to make a Dog Whisperer post. There doesn’t need to be another Dog Whisperer post on the internet. To be fair, nothing is forcing me to make this post. But it’s come up in conversation quite a bit around me lately and I figured I would just write out a big response. That way the next time I am asked what my thoughts on the Dog Whisperer are, I can just sigh and give them the link to this post, so that I may go back to my merry life of inhaling some nacho Goldfish crackers for dinner again. They’re extra salty from all my tears of boredom.

The Dog Whisperer. Cesar Millan. That guy. A lot of people love his show, a lot of people hate it. Pretty controversial dude – for a reason. For clarity, the main techniques of Millan’s I’m talking about are alpha rolls, his “claw” move, the “tsst!” thing, that weird backward kick to the ribs he does, staring the dog down, and generally getting in the dog’s space to intimidate and “assert dominance.”

alpha as fuck

In a perfect world, no one would take a reality TV star seriously and that would be the end of it. He is entertainment. He is not science. End of story.

NOPE.

A lot of people are lazy and set in their ways (myself included, sometimes). We don’t want to think and seek answers for ourselves, especially not when National Geographic is going to serve it up on a silver platter with dramatic editing and background music to keep us enthralled.

Since many of us have the attention span of a gnat (do gnats actually have short attention spans, or is that just something they say?), I’m going to try making a concise, bulleted list of the issues with Cesar Millan’s ideologies and training methods.

  • None of his techniques/ideologies are based on actual scientific evidence.
  • Dogs are not wolves. Even if his information on wolves was correct, it’s not wise to treat them as though they’re the same.
  • Humans are not dogs. Dogs know this. It’s dumb for us to ever think we could accurately mimic dog behavior.
  • He has zero credentials in canine behavior. You will not find a single certified applied animal behaviorist or ethologist who agrees with his ideas/methods. He is an entertainer. Period. (For those curious, yes, I take this same stance on Victoria Stilwell.)
  • He cannot read canine body language to save his life. He sees a calm, submissive dog. Behavior experts see a shut down, terrified dog who’s learned what behavior most likely won’t get them killed. They are in self-preservation mode.
  • Many of his techniques exacerbate the very problems they’re trying to resolve. Even in “skilled” hands. At best, the human’s problem is suppressed – the dog’s underlying issue is never addressed or resolved.

That’s as detailed as I’m gonna get. Many other people have already made these arguments better than I have. One of my favorite articles on this is Dog Whispering in the 21st Century by Prescott Breeden (find it here: http://prescottbreeden.com/dog-whispering-in-the-21st-century/ ).

I was going to go through and copy/paste some of the best excerpts from that article, but that would be a huge disservice to it (and the excerpts I’d want to showcase would make this post almost as long as the article itself). Please for the love of your deity of choosing, just do yourself a favor and read it. Preferably with an open mind.

Recently someone asked, “why do people hate him so much?”

I don’t have anything against Millan as a person (that would be unfair, considering I don’t know him). Trainers and behaviorists take issue with the show because people absorb it as factual when it is not. The information he is putting out is genuinely harmful to the dogs of the people who employ his methods (you can put a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer on it all you want). We wouldn’t care so much if his show wasn’t hurting anyone. His techniques are misguided and based on misunderstandings. There is scientific evidence out there showing that his techniques are not the most humane and effective way to address these behavior problems. But sadly, science isn’t entertaining and charismatic enough to get a TV show that most people would care about.

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Pit Bullshit

I’m feeling more cynical and exasperated with the world than usual, so it’s time to rustle some jimmies.

Today a video was brought to my attention called “8 Pit Bull Lies You Might Believe” courtesy of the Clickbait Capital of the Internet: Buzzfeed. I won’t link to it because I’m lazy and I’m guessing you have the capability to Google it yourself (god I hope so).

Let me preface this post by saying I like pit bulls (in general). I’ve worked with a pit bull advocacy group for a couple of years now because dispelling myths is a huge fancy tickler of mine. Pit bulls are just another group of dogs to me. Many of them are very good dogs. Pit bull is an umbrella term typically referring to American Pit Bull Terriers (APBTs), American Staffordshire Terriers (AmStaffs), and Staffordshire Bull Terriers (Staffies).

But I’m getting irritated by pit bull advocates.

You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones who inundate your Facebook feed with some “precious angel furbaby” spiel about how pit bulls are forced to fight and were once called nanny dogs. The very people championing these dogs are the ones who know the least about them. I can’t be too hard on them, I was like that once – not very long ago, even. I’ve encountered anti-pit bull websites that do better, more objective research than these people for crying out loud.

I’m all for telling people that pit bulls are not vicious baby-eaters who will turn on you. But not if it means spewing your own misinformation gathered from image macros shared by the crazy rescue lady on Facebook. And by the way, the nanny dog thing is mostly bullshit too. There’s no legitimate source for pit bulls (at least not APBTs) being called nanny dogs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s mostly attributed to Staffies and how they love kids (but didn’t necessarily mean they were good with them).

So let’s go through these “8 Pit Bull Lies.”

1. “LIE: Pit bulls are inherently dangerous. TRUTH: Responsible ownership can prevent any aggressive tendencies.”

Pit bulls? Dangerous? Only if you’re another dog.

Alright, alright. I’ll agree that pit bulls are not these folk’s definition of “inherently dangerous.” They’re no more likely to eat your face for breakfast than any other breed. But it is very important to acknowledge and accept that dog-aggression often crops up in pit bulls. This mostly happens with the American Pit Bull Terrier specifically since it was bred into them, but with how mixed up and watered down pit bulls are these days it can pop up in some of the other bully breeds as well. There’s nothing wrong with dog-aggression. Unless you want another dog and cannot safely manage a crate-and-rotate living situation. Though many will argue that with dog fighting on its way out there’s no purpose for dog-aggression anymore. I won’t touch that one.

I will add that dog-aggression and human-aggression are completely unrelated and the latter is generally frowned upon. This is where some of you chime in with, “Yeah! Dog fighters would cull any dog that showed aggression to humans!” Well, probably, for the most part. But you know if that dog was an excellent fighter the owner would probably be willing to overlook some things. It’s still quite uncommon, though. Of all the dogs I’ve felt unsafe around, few, if any, were pit bulls (that’s what we call “anecdotal evidence and therefore invalid,” kids).

Also, “responsible ownership can prevent any aggressive tendencies”? Uh. That depends on what aggressive tendencies we’re talking about here. Proper socialization and training is absolutely super important and can have a huge impact, yes. Handling your dog poorly can ‘cause some behavioral issues such as aggression. But again, there is a genetic component. Dog-aggression is bred for. Just like prey drive or toy drive, it will always be there. You can dampen it, but it will still be there and you had better know how to safely manage it. These dogs are not “trained” or “forced” to fight other dogs. That drive is innate and they love doing it. I won’t say that makes it right, but I get really tired of people completely misunderstanding this.

 

2. “LIE: Pit bulls have locking jaws. TRUTH: Their jaws exert less force than the jaws of Rottweilers and German Shepherds.”

Actually, I can’t disagree with this one either (though I would like to know in what context these dogs are exerting force with their jaws). But I can elaborate. Pit bull jaws are structurally no different from other breeds and have no locking mechanism. This myth sprung from the way pit bulls have a tendency to bite and hold when fighting. When most dogs fight there’s a whirlwind of fur and snapping teeth. Not so with pit bulls, generally speaking. Once they bite, they hold on and won’t let go for anything. It’s oddly calm. It’s simply the bite/fight style they were bred to have. And it’s why you need a break stick for these dogs.

 

3. “LIE: Pit bulls are poorly behaved and aggressive. TRUTH: They consistently rank above average on temperament tests.”

The temperament test in question is the one by the American Temperament Test Society. Without going into long, boring detail, I don’t put a lot of stock into this test. From their website: “The test simulates a casual walk through a park or neighborhood where everyday life situations are encountered.” That’s it. That’s all you get. A 12-minute peek into how your dog would handle gunshots and various strangers. Context is important to dogs. They may act one way during this test, but differently when at home, with different people, with different animals, with different objects. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fabulous that pit bulls can pass this test with such flying colors, but it’s not a black and white bottom line. I’d just like to see more input from certified behaviorists on it. My dog probably would have failed that test because of the gunshots alone, but he had one of the most stable, solid temperaments of any dog I’d ever met.

4. “LIE: Pit bulls have always been known as bad dogs. TRUTH: They were originally known as ‘America’s dog.'”

This one I don’t actually know that much about. But boy all those old propaganda posters with pit bulls on ’em sure were cute.

5. “LIE: Pit bulls will turn against their owners without warning. TRUTH: Dogs always give a warning before attacking. Reading their body language is important.”

For the most part, I’ll agree with that truth. Many, many dog owners don’t have a clue about canine body language and miss crucial signals from their dogs all the time. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a dog who didn’t give some kind of warning. But I’ll play devil’s advocate a bit here. Some dogs show fewer or more subtle warnings than others (though it has nothing to do with breed). How many of you have punished your dog for growling before? Five bucks said your dog just learned to stop growling and skip straight a more severe reaction. And also that you’re an asshole.

6. “LIE: All pit bulls were bred for fighting. TRUTH: Only 3% of pit bulls are involved in dogfighting. Many were bred for work and companionship, because of their gentleness and loyalty.”

Whoa, I’d like to see a source on that. This lie can get dicey. But 3% seems oddly specific. Depending on who you ask, a dog isn’t even considered an APBT if it hasn’t fought in matches, because that’s the very thing they were created for. So were all pit bulls bred for fighting? No. All APBTs? Eh, a good chunk of them, most likely.

7. “LIE: Breed-Specific Legislation helps keep neighborhoods safe. TRUTH: Laws that focus on education and responsible ownership are the ones that make a difference.” 

I actually have nothing to be catty about here. It’s true, BSL has proven to be largely ineffective.

8. “LIE: Nobody wants a pit bull for a pet. TRUTH: According to a survey by VetStreet, the American Pit Bull Terrier is one of the top three most popular breeds in 28 states.”

I don’t really have much for this one either. Pit bulls do make up a decent chunk of the population in many shelters around the country, but there are many variables to consider other than “well I guess no one wants them.” For instance, how many pit bulls are there compared to other breeds, how many are owned by irresponsible douchelords who let them keep having oops litters constantly, etc.

I’ll end this by saying pit bulls are good dogs. I admire their gameness, incessant need to love someone, anyone, and their big, doofy heads. But they’re not the first dog to come to mind when I think “good all-around family dog.” Though some do fit that description, pits are typically high energy dogs with high prey drives and some dog-aggression. They can be difficult for your average dog owner to manage. They’re not for everyone. Not even me. So let’s be realistic and honest about the dogs we’re trying to spread the truth about.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go cry myself to sleep because instead of doing something meaningful with my life I just sat here and spent valuable time picking apart a Buzzfeed video on the internet.

Goodbye, Good Dog

I’m writing this in hopes that it will help me grieve and move on. I don’t know that I will ever find peace with what happened, but maybe writing about it will help me accept it. I lost my dog yesterday morning. My awesome, irreplaceable Shadow. Gone.

goofy shadow

We adopted him from a shelter in Arkansas in 2002 when I was only 14 years old. I remember that day. Like a typical 14-year-old, I just wanted a cool-looking dog. You know, something badass and wolf-ish. Shadow was the closest thing they had. A big, black dog who looked mostly like a German Shepherd, until you saw his ears – goofy, crooked things that stuck out to the sides like wings on an airplane. They estimated he was about a year old. I picked him out and we were brought outside to the meet-n-greet yard. I crouched down to encourage him to come say hi. He came right toward me and I prepared to be sniffed or licked – until he passed right by me to investigate the smells on the ground. He had zero interest in me. My teenage ego was hurt, but I decided I wanted him anyway. I remember as my mom was signing the paperwork and paying the adoption fee he peed on the front desk. D’oh.

A few hours later, we arrived home.  We brought him inside to check the house out, and he promptly peed on my luggage. It was clear we had a marker on our hands. But after that night he never once peed inside a house again. He was mostly an outside dog. Not the most responsible decision, but things were different then. He wasn’t the most clingy or affectionate dog, so he seemed to like it fine. After high school, I moved to Canada for a year and a half and he stayed home with my mom. Then in 2009 I moved to Louisville, KY, where I currently reside.

It was in 2010 that I brought him here to live with me and became totally responsible for him. Back then he had a little trouble adjusting to new places, and of course it changed my life dramatically, so for a while I worried that I had made a mistake and wondered if he’d be happier back with my mom. But I stuck it out and we both adjusted fine. It was nice having something to force me to get out in the fresh air and take relaxing walks every day.

shadow ballard 2

He knew how to sit, but I didn’t start doing any formal training with him until around this time (thus proving old dogs can learn new tricks). I taught him down, shake, stay, touch, jump, spin, play dead, and a damn fine recall if I do say so myself. I could call him back to me in the middle of chasing a squirrel. Considering I was a novice at training, I give him a lot of the credit for simply being a good dog. I’m convinced if he were almost any other dog he would not have learned things half as quickly or performed half as reliably. He was a fantastic dog for a beginner like me. Not just with training, but in general.

Even before training he was so naturally well-behaved. Very mellow, never jumped up on people, rarely begged for food (and was very polite if he did), only barked when someone came to the door. The only accident he ever had indoors was completely my fault for giving him some food that upset his tummy before I left for work. Even near the end of his life when he had awful diarrhea he would ask to go out every time, even if all he had to do was cough up some bile (he hadn’t been eating). The only time he ever got into the trash was when we put a whole turkey carcass in there around Thanksgiving (turkey was one of his favorites). The only time he counter surfed was when I stupidly put that same carcass on the counter after taking it from him the first time. Total human error there.

He was also a somewhat strange dog. Except in the face of thunderstorms and fireworks, he was very calm, confident, independent. But he was very sensitive to people being upset with him. He would slink and offer appeasement gestures left and right to diffuse any anger. If I even used the word “no” during training his morale would take a hit and he would try to disengage. He helped teach me to train with a lot of patience and guidance. When I was being positive and helping him, he loved training with me. It was a great bonding experience for both of us. I admit I was that douchebag owner who walked their dog off leash a lot in the park, but he was not the kind of dog to run up to people or other dogs, and I was not the kind of owner to let him (though I had my dumb moments where I should have been more careful). He stayed close. It was nice that he willingly enjoyed walks with me instead of feeling he was forced to stay with me by a leash.

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Walks were his favorite things in the world. If I picked up his collar and leash he got excited and bounced around, grinning from ear to ear. He would even make some gleeful noises akin to Chewbacca if you got him amped up enough. He loved a good squirrel chase or digging after chipmunks. Although when we briefly lived in New Hampshire he messed with the wrong prey animal and got a few porcupine quills to the face, prompting a trip to the emergency vet. He learned not to be so bold with them after that. It wasn’t just small animals he liked to go after, oh no. He certainly enjoyed chasing deer and even tried to go up a tree after a bear once. That was one of the few times I was more grateful than usual for his willingness to listen to and follow me.

He was my buddy on many adventures. We explored many trails, walked in many parades, and he was with me every time I moved to a new place. He was a dignified old man, charming everyone he met. While he’d never turn down the opportunity to go on a walk, he was also content to hang out at home and enjoy a good petting session.

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(Photo by Sabarika)

 

On Saturday December 6th he developed some bad diarrhea and wasn’t eating. He had just been to the vet the prior Thursday to see about pain meds for his achy joints, which I had given to him Friday night. I thought surely these were just side-effects from the meds and if I took him off them he’d be fine, no problem. My vet was convinced something else was going on. Unfortunately, she was right.

Cue another visit to the vet. Blood work looks fine. We go in for an ultrasound and they find a bleeding mass in his spleen. I’m told these are usually caused by an aggressive form of cancer. Either way, the only treatment is surgery. I’m faced with a hard decision. My vet says we could also try an abdominal tap to send some fluids off for analysis and see if there are any cancer cells. I opt to do that, hoping it will give me some insight as to whether or not it’s worth putting him through surgery. On Wednesday the results come back showing no cancer cells (but it’s no guarantee). I decide to take the chance and schedule him for surgery to remove his spleen the next morning. Even though he was at least 13 years old, he was still otherwise very healthy and stable.

Wednesday night was his last good night. The appetite stimulant was working, he was eating some leftover pasta I had heated up for him and loving it. He even had the energy to do a few tricks. It was fantastic to see him almost back to normal and feeling well again. I had my happy buddy back, if only for a few hours.

The next day his surgery goes well, though he does wake up in a bit of pain (and my vet being the awesome person she is goes and buys him some lidocaine patches out of her own pocket to help make him comfortable). His stomach and intestines are also distended from not eating. I bring him home that night. Not surprisingly, he still won’t eat. Even when he was feeling well he was a bit of a picky eater and would refuse to eat if even a little stressed. The next night around 10:00pm I run to the store in my pajama pants and buy a whole chicken to make him some bone broth in the morning (which unfortunately takes around 24 hours).

He has a plethora of pills to take to help with pain, appetite, and his distended innards. Normally it’s very easy to get him to take pills hidden in food. But since he wasn’t eating, that means I had to pill him – which he did not enjoy. Despite all the stress and pain of going to the vet, surgery, and being pilled several times a day, he still trusted me and sought comfort from me. Thursday night he was feeling pretty rough and could only fall asleep if I was softly petting him. It was pretty miserable seeing him in so much discomfort, but I knew he’d get better eventually.

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On Friday he still would not eat, so I tried to syringe some Ensure into him with a turkey baster. Poor guy wasn’t a fan of that either. We spent the night at my vet’s house because he just wasn’t feeling well and she was really worried about him not eating. He was restless all night and I was so tired and just wanted to sleep that I got frustrated at him for not settling down and resting. That is something I will regret for a long time. Around 4:30 in the morning I woke up to find his breathing was shallow and he was a bit lethargic. I woke my vet and we took him outside because I knew he needed to pee, but he wouldn’t. She took his temperature to find it was really high. So off to the emergency vet we went.

The doctor came out and talked to me, told me they would likely need to keep him over the weekend. She didn’t hear a heart murmur, his lungs didn’t sound bad, his blood work came back looking okay, blood pressure was fine, the quick flash she did on the ultra sound showed nothing… what could be going on? His heartbeat was unusually fast, though. They said they would call if anything happened, but no news was good news. I went home to try and get some sleep.

Around 8:00am I was out cold and having a dream in which I was wandering around worried about Shadow. The sound of my phone ringing woke me up abruptly. I didn’t recognize the number but deep down I knew who it was. My heart sank as I repeated “no news is good news” in my head. I answered and was told by the vet that Shadow had stopped breathing and his heart had stopped beating right as she was checking it. They were performing CPR but having no luck and asked if I wanted them to continue. I said yes and we ended the call. I began to process what was going on and started to cry. She called back a moment later and said the CPR was still not working. Usually if they don’t get them back by now, they’re not going to. Through tears I choked out, “No… let him go…”

They later found he had aspiration pneumonia. He just didn’t have the strength to fight it. I spent that morning in bed, alternating between crying and being a lifeless zombie. I had always imagined he’d die peacefully in his sleep, or that I would know when it was time and give him the best day of his life before putting him to sleep, feeling content and safe in my arms. Instead he died scared and in pain without me there, and I’d spent some of my last few hours with him frustrated at him. I always knew his death would be hard on me, but that alone made it hit exponentially harder. There was little we could have done, even if we’d known about the pneumonia curveball life threw at us earlier. I will kick myself for not trying harder to get some food in him so he’d have more strength, but I tried.

I arranged to see his body before they cremate him later that day. I don’t want to see him lying there lifeless, but I know I need to say goodbye and pet him one last time for closure. They wheel his body in, covered in blankets. I take his collar off for the last time and start sobbing and petting him softly. He’s stiff. I’m painfully aware he’s no longer in there. All I can do is cry and say I’m sorry. My only solace is that he’s no longer suffering. My vet joins me a few minutes later. She is also a friend and Shadow’s death has hit her pretty hard as well.

I have not felt pain like this since my dad died in early 2002. I know that some day I will be okay, but right now it hurts like I’ve been stabbed in the chest and kicked while I’m down. I could not have asked for a better canine companion. I was lucky to have him. He didn’t deserve the end he got, but sometimes life is just incredibly unfair. I will be okay. Some day. So many friends and family members have been incredibly supportive and comforting, going through this would be much harder without them.

As cliche as it might be, I ask that you never take your dogs for granted and spend more time with them. Be patient and kind. You never know when you’ll be spending your final hours with them.

I’m not a religious person, but I hope like hell there is some sort of afterlife, and that some day Shadow and I will go on adventures again…

fogdogbig

 

 

Beware of the Crazy – (Guest Post)

I couldn’t agree more, so with the author’s permission I decided to host this here as a guest post.

“The past little while has been pretty disturbing to me. Particularly the past few days. I’ve spent most of my life with computers. I used online communities before there was an Internet, communicating via telephone coupled modems on private “bulletin board” systems. That experience showed me the value of free-speech and open dialogue. But it has also shown me that the nearly utopian “democracy” of the online world will expose you to all manner of crazy.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised but it had never occurred to me that Crazy can have a day job and that the day job might just be “dog training.” Now, let me be clear, when I say “crazy” I don’t mean “passionate” or “opinionated” or “know-it-all” or “sarcastic asshat.” I mean real live “holy-shit-who-does-this-kind-of-thing” crazy. Lots of folks can passionately defend their views on dogs and behaviour in a way that some people consider offensive without rising to the level of “crazy.” I have been accused of doing that myself.

No. Crazy is a whole different animal. Crazy is having alternate Facebook personalities because you have blocked people on your main account but you still want to see what they might be saying about you. Crazy is having conversations between your alternate Facebook account and your “real” Facebook account in the same discussion thread as if you are really TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE. Crazy is threatening other online dog trainers in private messages because you disagree with them. Crazy is creating pages specifically to destroy the credibility of a PERSON rather than openly debate a concept or idea. Crazy is asking those “When did you stop beating your wife?” type questions to win an argument. And the list goes on.

Those familiar with the online world know that this is nothing new. It’s the kind of garden variety crazy that we have come to expect in the online world and most of us just ignore it and move on. We shake our heads and perhaps give a pitying chuckle to these “crazies” and their causes. But in this case, I think there is some collateral damage. For years people like Karen Pryor and Suzanne Clothier and Patricia McConnell and Ian Dunbar (and many others) have been trying to move the dog world forward by involving science and new approaches to living and working with dogs. Unfortunately, Crazy seems to have hitched its wagon to this new wave of dog training.

In the 1800’s, British pollitical philosopher John Stuart Mill said that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” There are some simple and obvious facts to consider. Crazy is loud. Crazy attracts attention. Crazy is persistent. Crazy isn’t afraid to play fast and loose with the Truth in its pursuits. Most importantly in the online world, Crazy splashes itself around. Those of us involved in the progressive dog training movement stand a real chance of getting tainted with Crazy just because people have seen us around it and not saying anything against it.

In the end it doesn’t matter what quadrants you prefer or the fact that you have used science-based training to earn countless performance titles with your dogs. It doesn’t matter that you can demonstrate that behaviour analysis has improved your training with your dogs. It doesn’t matter if you can show the bad effects of the wrong kinds of training collars. What will matter is that you are associated with Crazy.

And that will make dog owners think twice before they believe what you are saying or pay for your services. Remember it’s all out there on the public record for anyone to read on the Internet. I don’t want Crazy defining who I am and what I do with dogs and training. Whether you are “Force Free” or “Positive Training” or “Progressive Training” or “Mark and Reward Training” or any of the many other variants for progressive training, make sure that Crazy doesn’t define who you are.”

– Anonymous

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But let’s face it, we’re all a LITTLE crazy sometimes.

Frustrated by Force Free Fundamentalism

I will not apologize for my love of alliteration, by the way.

So, it’s time for a rant. I am what many would call a “positive” trainer – I use reward-based methods, I focus on building trust and guiding the dog to perform the appropriate behavior. I never use any physical corrections (unless you count nudging my very oblivious dog to get him to move out of my way in my tiny apartment).

"I do what I want."

“I do what I want.”

There is a relatively new movement in the training world called “force free” training. They also heavily focus on rewarding the dog for doing the correct behavior and are against any harsh corrections. They feel using pain or intimidation to coerce a dog into doing what you want is an unnecessary use of force. These forceful corrections may be administered via choke chain, prong collar, shock collar, hitting/kicking, body blocking, shouting “no!”, or anything that makes the dog feel “forced” into performing the behavior to avoid something unpleasant. I am, technically, a force free trainer. If a dog is uncomfortable with something I don’t make them do it. Instead I will work with them until they are comfortable with it or find an alternative way.

I know some force free trainers who are lovely, reasonable, talented people. This post is not about them. This is about the force free fundies. The people who make me ashamed to call myself a force free trainer for fear I will be associated with them. There’s a reason the word “extremist” has a negative connotation. That is when you start to lose perspective and reason. There are some force free fundies out there who seem to believe causing the dog any amount of stress is simply too “mean.” Some of the particularly nutty ones will go on to tell you that even withholding a reward is “mean.” They argue that it’s technically “negative punishment” (one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning). The annoying thing about the quadrants is that some trainers focus way, WAY too much on them. If something can technically be considered “positive punishment” they will refuse to use that technique. They don’t stop to think and take into account whether or not that individual dog even finds it punishing. It’s kind of a complicated mess drowning in technicalities, so I won’t bore you trying to explain the quadrants further. Some folks need to stop treating the quadrants like some dog trainer religion where positive reinforcement is your almighty God and positive punishment is the dark lord Satan. In fact, don’t even think about them when training. They are irrelevant (note that I am not saying they are unimportant, just… don’t worry about them so much).

Probably how force free fundies view the quadrants.

Probably how force free fundies view the quadrants.

For example, some force free fundies are even very much against no reward markers (when you essentially tell the dog “no, sorry, that’s not what I asked for, try again”) because it’s technically a punishment and OH LAWD HAVE MERCY, WHY WOULD YOU BE SO CRUEL? Training should be a fun and engaging experience, yes, I totally agree. But whether they want to admit it or not, there are some dogs that are totally okay with no reward markers. Some even do better with them because it’s helpful feedback that can get them on the right track quicker and set them up for success more frequently. I can’t use no reward markers on my German Shepherd mix. He is a very sensitive flower and would get very upset if I told him “nope” even with the happiest tone and body language. When you give our Border Collie a no reward marker, though, she has that “oh okay, I should try something else, got it, thanks!” moment which gets her back on the right track more quickly than if I didn’t use it at all. Instead she would likely just keep flailing down the wrong track and get incredibly frustrated that she wasn’t nailing it. So what would be more “mean” there?

The force free fundies are also the people who will recoil in horror if you so much as say “prong collars can be used effectively,” because their filters are completely screwed up and all they hear is “I love inflicting pain on dogs, and I probably also punch toddlers for fun.”

I’m gonna say it. Prong collars can be used effectively. So can shock collars and choke chains. That does not mean I use or recommend them. If they were not effective when used properly (yes, there is a proper way) then they would not be so widely used still. Some dogs are not sensitive to the corrections at all and the rewards (whatever they may be for the dog) outweigh the discomfort of the punishment enough to keep them engaged and learning. I would be an idiot in denial if I refused to admit that. But I still don’t use or recommend them because largely I find them unnecessary and the potential behavioral fallout is too great a risk to take in my opinion. But force free fundies will close their eyes, plug their ears, and go “LALALA CAN’T HEAR YOU” because they write it off as “too mean.” Thinking and observing in an objective and critical manner is apparently too much effort. Some use and misinterpret science to push their moral agenda. To make matters worse, the fundies I’ve encountered are very rarely positive in their approach with people. They can’t even consistently practice what they preach.

To my reasonable force free peeps: keep on doin’ what you’re doin’. To the fundies: take a deep breath and get some perspective. You’re not winning anyone over this way.

Edit (11/03/14) – The following is some boring comments and my boring responses to them, feel free to skip this part: Oh me oh my, this post is getting a lot of attention lately. There have been some comments on social media I wanted to address here in case anyone else had the same thoughts and were curious about a response from me.

Someone commented:

“This person is missing the point. I wonder if they realize there is a REASON some people stick to pesky things like science, behavior psych, and learning theory. ANY form of +P is susceptible to the SAME fallout, no matter how mild. We chose to not use +P and -R because of documented potential for fallout, coupled with the fact that there ARE better ways without that potential.
No matter the subject, I really don’t like to see people brush off science and facts as personal agendas and as things that are optional or to be taken into consideration but not too seriously. Learn to science, plzkthx.”

I am totally not dismissing science here, but I didn’t go into detail because when you think critically about something, especially science, it can become an impressively deep rabbit hole that is incredibly boring to most people who stumble across my blog (Prescott Breeden and Eric Brad have already posted on why the quadrants are more dicey than we think, I recommend seeking out those articles if you want to get into it more). And while I don’t necessarily care if I get a ton of readers, I don’t want to bore them to death either.

I completely understand that +P carries the risk of fallout. I don’t know if you missed the part in my post about my dog who is extremely sensitive to any kind of punishment. He would attempt to disengage from training if I so much as used a no reward marker with the happiest tone and body language possible. In my early training days I accidentally poisoned his “stay” cue by using body blocking, which I didn’t recognize at the time he was very uncomfortable with. Teaching him has been a great learning experience and how to go about things without using anything the dog considers punishing. I am absolutely not advocating for the use of aversives in dog training (an alarming amount of people think just because someone says they can work means they advocate for them – I just don’t want people lying to themselves). But I do recognize that they can work on certain dogs with little to no fallout – otherwise these tools and techniques would not still be so widely used on service, military, and police dogs. But I also recognize many of those dogs probably wash out because the correction-based training does not work for them in particular, whereas they would have succeeded beautifully with positive techniques and a good trainer. I have never used leash corrections, choke, prong, or shock collars and I do not foresee myself ever needing them. But I have not trained every dog in the world. I preach about how every dog is different, and that means it is entirely possible there is a dog out there that thrives just fine on a prong. I don’t know. It’s unlikely a dog will do better with those tools and techniques than with just positive training alone, but I keep an open mind.

By the way, when I talk about science, I mean legitimate science – peer-reviewed papers by people with PhDs. Not some article written by a KPA graduate or what have you. But I totally agree that the legitimate science does support “positive” training methods. That is why I use and advocate for them. But the science also says that things like prong collars are sometimes not straight-up torture as some of the extremists seem to believe. Science and emotions don’t mix. I understand it’s hard not to get passionate about this. It is very hard to watch dogs suffer from the owner’s ignorance. But we’re not going to win them over if we come off as condescending and puritanical. I know people who have been pushed away from positive training simply because of the extremist attitudes of some folks in the community. We’re screwing ourselves over and making positive training look bad. So it’s a problem I’d like to see diminish. This is just a little rant thrown into the depths of the internet in an attempt to get people think more critically and be a little less judgmental – I assure you I spend much more time actually out at public events working with organizations to promote positive training and an understanding of canine behavior, as well as working with shelter dogs so the adopters can see what this training is capable of.

Another comment said:

I get the intent especially since her next blog talks about how some people are using fake profiles – talking to themselves in threads using multiple profiles and a bunch of other stuff.
However, I usually find that people who express, “I don’t do x because…I’d much prefer y” are immediately attacked as being fundamentalists. I’m not sure we should set up a scenario where expressing how to get better results or use fewer aversives is belittled or censored in a “you ought to be more positive – yeah – you the person who is expressing how you do things.”
I find that these types of posts just act as a call to arms – a “hip hip hooray that someone is telling those R+ trainers to shut up already.
I don’t think the majority of R+ trainers are taking a moral high ground. I’m a crossover trainer. I wouldn’t do that to the harshest force trainer because I used corrections in the past.”

It may be because my experience with the extremists have been particularly abundant and frustrating, so I was perhaps a bit heated when I wrote this post. I totally have no problem with the “I don’t do x because I’d much prefer y” people. I love anyone who can have a civil conversation about training and be reasonable, even if I disagree with them. I know sometimes they get targeted, but rest assured they’re not who this post is about. I won’t go into detail about who it is about because they don’t need the extra attention and as you pointed out, my next post “Beware the Crazy” goes over some of them. I can understand how some may feel this is a “yay someone is telling those R+ trainers to shut up” post, but there’s only such much control I have over how someone interprets my words. If they took two seconds to read the “about me” page they’d know that’s not what I’m saying. I love R+, I practice it, I advocate for it, I educate the public about it. But in a reasonable manner. I suppose I wouldn’t say the majority of R+ trainers are taking the moral high ground, no, but there is definitely a very vocal minority who are souring it for many people – myself included. I just don’t want to see more and more people going down that extremist, holier-than-thou path. I love seeing people be reasonable, critical thinkers just as much as I love helping people understand and work with their dogs more humanely.

Why and How Should I Use Treats for Training?

Using treats to train your dog is something I feel some people don’t fully understand. It’s a little more complicated than giving your dog a cookie for being good. It’s actually a skill that can take practice. Yes, it is possible to be bad at rewarding your dog. Timing and treat delivery are key. 

Some folks even argue against using treats. They say it’s just bribery, it’ll make your dog fat, they want their dog to work for them, not the food, etc. 

The bribery argument brings us back to that whole “it’s a skill that can take practice” thing. If you suck at how you reward your dog, the treat absolutely can become a bribe. If you find you’re having to show the treat before your dog will comply, your dog is probably thinking, “Hm, there appears to be no treat in it for me, so why bother?” as they walk off in bored indignation. Alternatively, it could be that you’ve accidentally made the presentation of the treat part of the cue. Your dog hasn’t quite learned that saying “sit” means he should sit, but that saying “sit” and holding up a treat means he should sit. Dogs are very visual communicators and body language is what they know best.

The treat should be more of a surprise. They should have no idea if their behavior will earn a treat until after they perform it. I frequently made the mistake most people make where I would stick my hand in my bait bag, ready to grab a treat, when asking for a behavior. That visual signal became part of the cue to perform the behavior, and the dog tended to focus more on that than the verbal cue. 

I hate the “using treats will make your dog fat” argument because that tells me that person may not be so good in the critical thinking department. It’s a pretty easy issue to solve. If your dog will work for kibble, use his meals for training sessions. Make him work for it. That way he gets no more than his usual meal and some great mental stimulation to wear him out.

If you’re using treats for training outside of meals, cut down the size of his meals. If you’re going to a training class at 9:00AM where you know your dog will (ideally) be receiving lots of treats for his hard work, maybe skip breakfast or give him only a small portion of it. Or see if your dog will work for healthy food like bits of carrot or broccoli. You could even up your dog’s exercise if needed.

I totally get the argument that people want their dog to want to work for them and not the food. Some dogs will gladly work for praise, but some might think, “That’s all I get? You’re an idiot.” Just like every person is different, every dog is different. It’s unfair to expect a dog to work for something he doesn’t find very valuable. How likely are you to want to come to work if your weekly paycheck is $200 instead of $500? Good bosses know how to motivate their employees and make working with them an enjoyable experience. The same goes for good dog trainers.

Put simply, pairing treats with an experience makes the dog feel good about that experience, it makes the dog want to work with you because it’s fun. It actually affects brain chemistry and produces those feel-good hormones (just like harsh punishment can produce those feel-bad hormones). 

I’ll use my experience with shopping malls as an example (humans and dogs learn by the same principles, after all). I grew up half an hour from the nearest city. We didn’t go there too often. I remember being really excited when we would go because we would get to go to ~*~* THE MALL*~*~. The mall was always so fun to me because there was so much cool stuff! Even if I didn’t get to buy anything, it was fun to go and see everything. As an adult, malls are way less exciting to me (especially due to my pitiful bank account balance), but I still get that initial gut reaction of ‘WHEE!” every time I pass one. Those fun experiences and the positive associations that were made ingrained the “malls are fun” feeling into me.

The same can be done with a less interesting place like the DMV. If you have a good experience every time you go there, you’ll find yourself reflexively lighting up anytime someone mentions the DMV. Alternatively, if you go to an amusement park (a place that is normally supposed to be a lot of fun) and have a particularly bad experience, chances are anytime someone mentions that park you’ll have a negative visceral reaction.

While this post focuses on treats, it should go without saying that you can use a variety of things to motivate and reward your dog – toys, play, access to outside, permission to go greet another dog, etc.

I use treats because they’re easy, they yield solid results, and they help build the relationship between me and my dog. It does more than you’d think to teach your dog that working with you is fun. This was a bit of a simplified overview, but it’s still a bit of a rambling mess. If I had explored all the details, variables, and potential explanations, well… you probably would have just hit that red X up in the corner by now.

Seriously, am I getting paid for this? (Photo by Bethany Billick)

How to Make a Dog Collar

Many of you may not know that I make dog collars in my spare time.  So I thought The Internet might be interested in a little tutorial. Well here you go!!!

 

  • Step 1: Gather your collar ingredients.
collar how to 1

Make sure they’re fresh!

 

  • Step 2: Mix ingredients together in large bowl for 37 minutes.

collar how to 2

Nice and blended now.

 

  • Step 3: Dump into skillet on low heat. Flip periodically to ensure it gets done on both sides.
collar how to 3

Guitar spatula is optional (but recommended).

 

  • Step 4: Add thread to taste.
collar how to 4

Not too much now!

 

  • Step 5: Serve on a bed of lettuce. Garnish with chicken leg.
collar how to 5

Delicious!

 

Enjoy.

dex collar